Creative lighting design illuminates regional attractions
by Gene Jeffers
The SPRK Lighting story begins and ends with a passion for lighting and a deep attention to detail. CEO and founder Matt Cooper’s, to be precise. That energy and focus build the fire in his team to deliver the best possible impact for the available budget and schedule. “And we’re scrappy,” Cooper insists. “Don’t forget scrappy!”
At heart, the work of a lighting designer is always about helping deliver exceptional experiences within a variety of environments. “When what we have designed and installed crackles to life and changes a familiar space into something new and magical, then I know we have succeeded,” Cooper says. One only has to stroll after dark into the Foggy Hollow at Silver Dollar City in Branson, Missouri, or witness a child’s excitement touring Dollywood’s Great Pumpkin Luminights to witness the impact of a SPRK Lighting installation.
Based in Lexington, Kentucky, SPRK is ideally located to work with nearby venues whose guests and visitors are demanding ever more immersive experiences. Scattered across the region is a great variety of unique attractions that must compete for those guests against larger and more distant theme parks. “We offer facilities a cost-efficient value proposition,” Cooper says. “From design right through installation and programming. Whatever the project needs, we will do what it takes to deliver.” SPRK Lighting’s blend of creativity, common sense and a can-do attitude is well-suited to the task.
Case in point: Moonshine Mountain Coaster
After dark, heading up Route 321 North out of Gatlinburg, just past the Hillbilly Golf and Parton’s Café, you’ll hear shouts and laughter coming from a stretch of woods filled with ethereal light. You might wonder what is happening up on the mountain.
Under new ownership and management, Gatlinburg’s first – and now newest, after a $2 million refit and upgrade – Moonshine Mountain Coaster (the former Gatlinburg Mountain Coaster) is a unique, family-friendly thrill ride through 10 acres of woods in the Great Smoky Mountains. Single- or double-rider cars coast down the mountain on a specially-designed silent track that twists and turns over the steep hills.
Offering rides after dark was an important component of Moonshine Mountain’s business plan and an essential key to its success. “The plan was to use environmental lighting throughout the property to create an entirely new, nighttime experience that would bring back daytime guests and attract entirely new riders,” says Klaus Machne, GM of Moonshine Mountain Coasters. With opening day approaching rapidly, Machne had some basic temporary lighting installed for the soft opening, but he knew far more was required to creatively light the forest along the nearly mile-long route of the ride if the target numbers of nighttime riders were to be attracted.
An online search led him to SPRK Lighting. “Matt and his SPRK team were exactly what we needed. He answered my call right away. I gave him the timeline, and immediately he was on it.” Even before visiting the site, Cooper reached out to suppliers to ensure sufficient inventory was reserved for the project. Within a week he visited the site, walked the entire route, and listened to Machne and the ride operator’s hopes and thoughts for the installation. “Matt is very personal, very hands on. Very basic, straightforward, doesn’t wear a suit,” says Machne. “I asked a lot of questions, and it soon became apparent he knew his stuff. He listens to you, pays attention.”
Machne was surprised at how quickly Cooper and his team arrived on site to begin installation. Within two months – and in time for the grand opening – SPRK Lighting’s team had installed a new, programmable environmental lighting system across the rugged landscape. “Everyone at SPRK was very professional, very personable,” he says. “Always pleasant to talk with, always willing to answer questions. Everything went smoothly, no bad surprises, only pleasant ones!”
Machne noted that with the new system’s capabilities, the Moonshine Mountain Coaster lights can be reprogrammed for seasonal and holiday specials, offering different experiences throughout the year and growing repeat business. And since the coaster’s reopening, after- dark ridership has nearly doubled ridership numbers. “Excitement, adventure – that is what is happening here after dark, thanks to Matt and his team from SPRK,” says Machne. “Their quick work and the beauty and flexibility of their installation have helped ensure our success.”
Lost Canyon Christmas Cart Tour at Top of the Rock
Big Cedar Lodge’s 2.5-mile Lost Canyon Cart Tour at Top of the Rock winds through the Ozarks past stunning rock formations, beautiful waterfalls and views of Table Rock Lake a few miles south of Branson, Missouri. While the golf cart ride offers spectacular vistas in the daytime, until recently it was idled after dark.
Last summer they contacted attraction designer Melody Matheny as creative director for their first-ever night tour and holiday experience on the course. “After research and viewing the site, we proposed a secular theme, incorporating Native American motifs, the natural environment and how holidays bring us all together,” explains Matheny. “We wanted to emphasize connections to nature and wildlife, to the lore of the local Osage tribe, and between people – how important connections are during the holidays. As a nighttime experience, lighting design was critical and, for my design, it needed to evoke the inner glow you get when connected to people and places you love.”
As with most holiday specials, the project was fast moving. Matheny turned to SPRK Lighting. “Matt’s group has extensive knowledge about the area, they seem to know every supply house and resource,” she says. “He and his team have great personalities, handle details efficiently, and most important, they communicate effectively. That can’t be stressed enough when the clock is ticking.”
With the project stretched over miles of rough terrain and the lighting team working long hours at night, Matheny was impressed by Cooper’s attention to detail with
every scene. “Matt was so hands on,” she says. “He was everywhere, touching everything, checking everything. You can see his passion for lighting design and what he and his team are doing. They brought my visions to life.”
Building for the future
SPRK Lighting has done well with a range of regional attractions and parks. Lighting design is a collaborative process very much like theater or film. Project-oriented and blending multiple disciplines, the specialty is an integral part of the unique, specialized world of themed- and location-based entertainment. “What a joy it is to work in this field,” says Cooper. “Every day demands personal interactions and high trust levels with immensely talented people.” His infectious excitement for the work, in large part, is why the firm’s portfolio has grown rapidly in a few short years, including the projects above but also successful design and installs at Newport Aquarium Seahorses and their Christmas Show, Traditional Bank’s Christmas at Mustard Seed Hill, Chuggington Adventure Depot, Indianapolis Zoo Bicentennial Pavilion, Gideon’s Bakehouse, Silver Dollar City’s Rivertown Smokehouse Restaurant, and Mystic River Falls, to name a few.
SPRK Lighting is growing, with an appetite for more projects, especially when it comes to regional attractions. Their philosophy is that if you excel with the project and the client, more work will find you, and it is bearing fruit. “SPRK has shaped and illuminated some of our biggest festivals and projects,” says Erica Rutledge, Senior Director, Guest Experience Development at Herschend Family Entertainment, parent company to many of the projects listed above. “They have a knack for creating impactful lighting at a cost our projects can afford. To us, that is invaluable and is what keeps us coming back with more.”
With demand for their services growing, Cooper is building the scrappy SPRK Lighting team to be agile, responsive, focused on details, and with a practical, can-do approach. He knows that for both the client and his team, the guest experience is what matters most. “In the end, it all comes down to that moment when you see the guests’ eyes grow big, hear a crowd go ‘oooh,’” says Cooper. “That moment never gets old. That’s what SPRK lives for, that’s why we’ll fight to extract every last ounce of impact from every single lighting project.”
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